Some animals make themselves sound bigger than they are

Some animals make themselves sound bigger than they are and it could shed light on how humans first started to speak

  • Researchers from the Netherlands and Switzerland studied ‘dishonest signalling’
  • Some animals use this sound strategy to exaggerate their size and attract mates
  • Male koalas and red deer, for example, use calls that sound larger-than-life
  • The team found that animals faking their size are skilled new sound learners

Some animals make themselves sound bigger than they are — and this process could shed light on how humans first started to speak, a study has found.

The noise-based strategy — which experts dub ‘dishonest signalling’ — sees the creatures create an exaggerated impression of body size to attract mates.

Male red deer, for example, produce low-frequency calls that make them appear bigger than they actually are to potential sexual partners.

Male koala mating songs, meanwhile, include very low bellows usually associated with larger-sized mammals.

Some animals make themselves sound bigger than they are — and this process could shed light on how humans first started to speak, a study has found (stock image)

‘We believe that a “dishonest signalling” strategy may be a first evolutionary step towards learning how to make new sounds of any sort,’ explained paper author and biologist Maxime Garcia of the University of Zurich, Switzerland.

‘Speculatively, it brings us closer to understanding human speech evolution: our ancestors may have learnt how to speak after learning how to sound bigger or how to hit high notes.’

In their study, the researchers compared the sounds and body sizes of 164 different mammals — ranging from mice and monkeys all the way to aquatic mammals such as the subantarctic fur seal and the Amazonian manatee.

The team found that animals which make noises to fake their body size are often skilled sound learners, with flexible voice capacities.

‘We hypothesise that, as a precursor to vocal learning, some species might have evolved the capacity for volitional vocal modulation via sexual selection for ‘dishonest’ signalling,’ the researchers wrote in their paper.

The work provides a new way of investigating the evolution of communication systems, they added.

In their study, the researchers compared the sounds and body sizes of 164 different mammals — ranging from mice and monkeys all the way to aquatic mammals such as the subantarctic fur seal and the Amazonian manatee. Pictured, a subantarctic fur seal pup

‘We want to expand our theory to take into account other evolutionary pressures, not just sexual selection,’ said paper author and bioacoustics researcher Andrea Ravignani of the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics.

‘We also want to replicate our preliminary findings with more mammals and test whether our ideas also apply to birds or other taxonomic groups.’

‘If you saw a Chihuahua barking as deep as a Rottweiler, you would definitely be surprised,’ he added.

‘Nature is full of animals like squeaky-Rottweilers and tenor-Chihuahuas.’

The full findings of the study were published in the journal Biology Letters.

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